The War of Words . . .

August 20, 2016
By Holly Jennings

 . . . and the Personality of Punctuation


Paper in typewriter


Based on its title, you might suppose this posting is a topical one about the verbal battles between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which have included an incendiary comment from Trump about the second amendment that seemed to many like a literal call to arms.


It’s about writing and editing, and the defense of good practices, a matter too small to make it into the entertainment-as-news media channels.


Recently, a story I wrote about coffee ice cream was published in a local food magazine. I got my first glance at the story after submitting it when I received my copy of the issue in the mail a couple of weeks ago.


The anonymous editor did a great job of tightening the piece without losing its heart; a couple of story points that I find intriguing were cut, but I can always pick up their thread in another story later on, if I want to.


It’s what was added, rather than cut, that put me in a bad mood: the word umami and an exclamation point.


These two points are so miniscule—why call them out?, you might ask. If I don’t highlight them, probably no one would notice them. The word umami and even more so the exclamation point are sprinkled so indiscriminately these days in food writing that their exclusion might be more noticeable than their inclusion. But that is exactly my point.


Four of the basic tastes—salty, sweet, bitter, and sour—are easy to grasp. But umami? The fifth taste, it is a bit harder for most people to get their head (and taste buds) around than the other four. Most often, umami is defined as “savory” or “meaty”; the taste of foods such as Parmesan cheese or soy sauce is given as a reference point. Since this taste is a vague concept for many readers, and since the term umami is terribly seductive for writers to use to confer food knowledge on their part, I mostly steer clear of it.


And the popular exclamation point? To get an idea of how seldom this punctuation mark should be used, consider its out-of-the-way placement on the key board and the fact that you have to hit the “shift” key, too. It’s meant for special occasions, not every day typing.


As a cookbook editor, I spend most of my time trying to exorcise the misuse of cooking and food terms, the curse of vague sentences, and the plague of exclamation points (and capitalized words that have no business being capped, etc.), among either editorial tasks, keeping in mind the writer’s voice and audience. I do not remove all exclamation points if they are part of the writer’s personality and are what her readers have come to expect. Still, if every sentence in a recipe headnote has an exclamation point, I remove all but one or two at most, and suggest to the writer that she moderate her use of them: If every sentence has an exclamation point, I explain, they cancel each other out and you end up with no emphasis at all.


But in my own writing, you will not find exclamation points; I simply do not have an exclamation point personality. In fact, I could do with an anger translator, like President Obama has in this skit from Key and Peele:



Perhaps because readers have so much content to choose from, coming at them from all directions and at all times, and because we are told that readers have a reduced attention span, writers feel the exclamation point will grab and hold their readers’ attention.


But as a reader, when I come across exclamation points outside of dialogue or the occasional use in fiction writing, I feel disengaged and deadened, as if set upon by sunshine-pushing cheerleaders soliciting a Pollyanna, cardboard response to life, making me complicit in uttering a disingenuous response, like “hurrah!” or “that’s great!,” in unison with all the other “fans,” or readers. I can’t quite muster it. When administered to me, this soma pill has the exact opposite effect it’s intended to have.


So, I find it particularly ironic, irksome, and demoralizing that the un-Holly exclamation point and the over-used word umami found their way into my story, and the latter in a context in which I would not have used it: Never would I have described my suggested pairing of coffee ice cream with roasted seasonal fruit, chosen with the fruit notes of light to medium roast coffee bean in mind, as offering an “umami experience.”


Does this mean I have a chip on my shoulder about the people who make editorial decisions at the magazine that published my story? No. And I hope they won’t have one for me for writing this posting. Editors have the right to their own prerogatives, just like writers do.


Something good always comes out of being edited, even when you find yourself bothered by the process—you usually get great examples of how to tighten language and discard extraneous content and you learn something about yourself.


Sometimes the thing that seemed at first to be negative can turn into a good—into something fresh and creative, as in this case. The whole notion of an umami-tasting ice cream got me to consider what flavor I would describe as offering an “umami experience.” Mushroom, tomato, Parmesan cheese, chorizo, bacon, fish sauce: These are all obvious choices, but I’m not putting any of them in my ice cream.


That leaves black walnut ice cream. Black walnuts absolutely have an umami taste to them, and they are an ingredient I feel comfortable describing that way (see my story about black walnuts here). Testing and perfecting a black walnut ice cream recipe is something I’ve been meaning to do for aeons, anyway. I have my anonymous editor to thank for inspiring me to get my ice cream maker back out and create a truly umami ice cream. You’ll have my anonymous editor to thank, too, when you try the recipe (coming very soon, to Dowdy Corners Cookbook Or, you’ll have my anonymous editor to thank, too, when you try the recipe (coming very soon, to Dowdy Corners Cookbook!



To try the maple black walnut ice cream recipe I mention above, click here.

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